When writing a thesis, most students are focused on the content – and rightfully so! You want to make sure chapters are well researched and well written, the citations are placed correctly, and all of the data is recorded and analyzed. Formatting is probably one of the last things you think of. But paying careful attention to the overall look of your work is a key element to creating a polished and professional-looking thesis. The Graduate College Thesis Office is here to help!
As thesis coordinator, I’ve reviewed thousands of theses deposited at the University, and I’ve developed a list of five recommendations to help you create a well-formatted thesis that should easily pass through our thesis format check.
Download a title page template and submit it to the Thesis Office for review.
Many of the errors I catch when reviewing theses are on the title page. In fact, nearly 50% of the theses deposited in the past year had an issue with the title page. I get it—the spacing is a little strange and there is a ton of information you need to fill in. To help with this, download a title page template from the Thesis Office website. Then, before you give your completed thesis to your adviser or committee, email your title page to firstname.lastname@example.org for a pre-check. We can communicate any changes to you, which may save time later on!
Use the full-document template and other online formatting resources.
One difficulty some students encounter is inserting page numbers in the right style and setting up a table of contents. To help with this we’ve created MS Word templates to help you organize your entire document. You can download one of our templates. Make sure to also check out our sample thesis pages, which offer further guidance on our format requirements. If you are still having trouble, take a look at our Formatting FAQ page, which provides links to help with common formatting issues.
Keep your table of contents simple.
I once met with a student who remarked at how badly he wanted to create an extended table of contents that included four levels of subheadings because “it looks really cool.” But he ultimately decided against it because it could introduce more errors. He’s right! The more information you include in your table of contents, the greater possibility of mistakes. I often request revisions because there are spelling errors, incorrect page numbers, or missing headings. By just including the chapter title in your table of contents, you give the reader enough information to understand the outline of your thesis, and you reduce the number of errors introduced into the document. You can check out a sample simple table of contents here.
LaTeX users take note: While LaTeX does help you to produce beautiful documents complete with an automatically generated table of contents, errors still do find a way of creeping in. Gasp! Though (admittedly) this happens less in LaTeX than in MS Word, I have still encountered spelling errors and incorrect page numbers in the table of contents. Don’t solely rely on LaTeX—make sure to read through your table of contents!
Carefully select which numbering scheme you use for the figures and tables.
The Graduate College formatting requirements outline two different ways to number the tables and figures in your document:
Straight Numbering: The numbering should be continuous (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) throughout the document. Do not start over again for each chapter!
Decimal Numbering: The first number indicates the chapter, while the second indicates the placement of the figure/table within the chapter. So, if you had three figures in Chapter 1, they would be numbered: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3.
I once reviewed a thesis with 70 figures in it—all numbered in the straight numbering scheme. The author accidentally skipped figure 14, so they had to renumber virtually all of the figures in their thesis. I can imagine this was pretty stressful for the student. I know it was stressful for me as the reviewer! That’s why I recommend using the decimal numbering scheme—it’s easier to fix if you accidentally misnumber a figure or table. I suggest that you only use the straight numbering scheme if your thesis has fewer than 10 figures and/or tables in it, or if you are not planning to number your chapters.
Create your own style guide for your thesis.
Your thesis is a massive project that you have been working on over a long period of time, which makes it easy to lose track of how you have formatted the different components of your document. That’s why keeping track of the formatting decisions you have made is so important. I often see theses with headings that are inconsistently, page numbers that are inconsistently placed, or figure/table captions formatted inconsistently across chapters. As you can see, the key word here is consistently. We are open to many (if not all) of your formatting decisions—just as long as you are consistent. Some questions you might consider when developing your style guide include:
- What do you want your chapter titles to look like? (think about font, size, style)
- Will your headings be numbered or unnumbered?
- How do you plan to distinguish between first-level and second-level headings? (think about font, size, style)
- Where do you plan to put your page numbers?
- Where will your figure captions be placed?
- Where will your table captions be placed?
I recommend recording the answers to these questions and hanging them near your desk or workspace so that you can format your document as you write. You can download a free sample style guide here.
The Thesis Office webpages have a wealth of information to help you with formatting questions and the thesis process in general. Be sure to check out our workshops for opportunities to learn more.
Emily Wuchner is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.